Urban Outfitters has opened in the Park House development at Marble Arch and the store is very different from the other London branches. John Ryan visits.

Think Urban Outfitters and the image that tends to spring to mind is of a cunningly beaten-up in-store environment where waif-like young trendies with a lot of body art run around making sure that things look just so.

And the new store at London’s Marble Arch, which is part of the Park House development - the armadillo-like glass and steel structure that occupies the block just to the east of the Primark flagship - conforms to this stereotype.

But this 13,500 sq ft store, which opened last Friday and is spread over two floors with the basement representing around 65% of the total selling area, is different in a number of respects.

It has to be. Its immediate neighbours are the Zara and Bershka flagships and at some point a River Island store is scheduled to form part of the mix. The challenge for Urban Outfitters, where the clothing tends to be more expensive than the Inditex brands, or River Island for that matter, is to make its store sufficiently different from the more formatted retailers that surround it.

Point of difference

Steve Briars, creative director at Urban Outfitters, puts the point succinctly: “We have to look different from the others and we have to look different from what we’ve done in Oxford Circus.” He also makes the point that “roughly 50%” of every Urban Outfitters store is different from any other in the group owing to the way in which the interiors are created. The store interior and visual merchandising team “gets involved with the store design team from the outset and by knowing the inspiration for the store design, we can follow through,” he says.

A team of 20 “display artists” descended upon the Park House shop prior to opening to ensure that it really was different from what has gone before. These individuals are drawn from around the Urban empire and when the store is finished two of them will stay permanently as part of the shop team.

“Every single wall is put together by the display artists,” says Briars. The artists are also responsible for many of the bespoke elements that are found as the shopper walks the store, meaning that it is quite a sensory overload.

Two or three aspects are likely to grab attention as the shopper stands at the doorway. Almost certainly the first will be a hole in the floor. Few retailers faced with the prospect of trading on Oxford Street, with its associated sky-high rents, would feel inclined to cut back on the available selling area. Yet at the heart of this Urban Outfitters ground floor is a 1,000 sq ft square hole, providing instant sightlines to what is in the basement. Briars says that it’s a matter of getting customers to understand that a very large element of the offer is not on the ground floor and that, although this store represents two units knocked into one, it is still a relatively modest ground-floor footprint.

It will also be apparent that Urban Outfitters has followed its familiar industrial interior template. As in other locations, the use of raw concrete - and large, warehouse-like lighting above the hole in the floor void - helps to foster this impression. It is, of course, a complete fabrication. When the retailer took hold of the unit, it was as much a standard shell as any other new store along the strip. It’s been a question of creating an interior that flatters to deceive in this respect, according to Briars.

The other element that will probably catch the eye is the open-sided shed structure off to the right. This particular trait has been writ large on Regent Street in the Diesel Village pop-up store that is in place until April.

In Urban Outfitters, rather than multiple sheds, there is just the one and it is used to house vintage vinyl albums.

All in the detail

After this, the shopper will begin to notice other things. Near where the balustrade guarding the void begins, there is a series of trendy ‘fixie’ bikes in bright colours. These might not be noticed however, as directly in front of them are what Briars refers to as the “pissing dogs”. He relates how a quick, rough sketch by one of the design artists was turned into a cut-out graphic of a urinating hound. Multiples of these were produced and then positioned relieving themselves against the bikes. This small detail typifies the way in which the more you look at this interior, the more you see.

There is also the stock - shown to advantage on a wide array of equipment types and a number of tables
that appear to be either vintage or deliberately distressed. The total effect is seemingly haphazard, but is actually an exercise in intense control.

And so to the basement, pausing to admire the coloured light-boxes on the stairwell’s rear wall, which are used to reinforce the brand. Here things are much the same as upstairs, with visual merchandising vignettes at every turn and a bank of fitting rooms where the reclaimed wood gym floor has been arranged in a manner reminiscent of a stripy Paul Smith pattern.

And in the spirit of what you see is what you get, the cash desk counter has a glass front, allowing the wiring for the tills to be viewed. The same is true of the ceiling. There is ducting everywhere - much of it is false, the idea being that this is a ‘raw’ environment. Note should also be made of the reclaimed white neon tubes that have been strung together to create what Briars refers to as “dynamite” lighting. It’s a curious name, but its genesis is immediately apparent when you look at the fixtures.

Finally, and before leaving this level, a visit should be paid to the end of the floor closest to the staircase. Here there is a glass-fronted workshop, filled with electric power tools and, on the day of visiting, people working on creating fixtures and 2D graphics for the store. This feature will remain for the in-store display artists to continue being creative now that the store has opened, and is again about in-store transparency.

This is a very different proposition from the Oxford Circus shop and, being new, feels fresher and more accessible than that very large, multi-floor branch. It is also testimony to the way in which a space can be created that is different from all of its counterparts, but which very recognisably comes from the same stable.

Urban Outfitters, Park House, Marble Arch

Size 13,500 sq ft
Number of floors Two
Design In-house
Shopfitting McCue
Opened February 1
Ambience Art-house industrial